Soon-to-be first-time mothers Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (newcomer Milena Smit, who holds her own) meet as roommates in the maternity ward, bonding over helping each other through contractions. In some regards the two women could not be more different—Janis, a confident career woman with a ticking biological clock, is excited by the prospect of being a mother while teenage Ana is still more terrified than anything. Still, their similarities in how they both are facing unplanned pregnancies partnerless is a strong enough link to bridge the gap. They exchange info at the hospital with promises to keep in touch, neither one having any idea just how strange and intertwined their lives are about to become.
With his particular flavor of stylized, high-speed melodrama, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar is easily among the most distinctive filmmakers working today. With its thematic nexus of motherhood and family ties, comparing Parallel Mothers to Almodóvar’s most seminal work, All About My Mother, feels like something of an inevitability. To be sure, the films do share plenty of marked similarities while easily remaining distinctive enough to not feel redundant in any way. Ultimately, though, it’s the resemblances to All About My Mother that fully drive home the extent to which Parallel Mothers does pale in comparison.
While Almodóvar’s films tend towards rather frenetic energy across the board, here this energy does not always feel the most effectively channeled in a consistent direction; some plotlines feel like they are fighting for attention as opposed to working together. Unity and clarity in themes and visual storytelling manage to bring even the most disparate, convoluted, and far-fetched elements into a compelling and cohesive whole in Almodóvar’s best works, but here the intentionality sometimes feels lacking.
For instance, sections of the film consistently end with an interesting, slow dip to black on Janis’s face such that for a few moments she’s captured in an almost Rembrandt-like close-up. It feels like the sort of trend that has some deeper meaning—until the final stretch of the film when the dip-to-black moment lands on a close-up of a mug being filled with black coffee instead.
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline of Parallel Mothers regards the excavation of a suspected unmarked burial ground from the Spanish Civil War in Janis’s hometown, and while it resonates to some degree with the commentary on motherhood through the common thread of intergenerational trauma, explored here on both a micro and macro scale. While fascinating, the legacy of the war and the men who were stolen from their homes and ripped from their families, never to return, ultimately also feels somewhat underutilized, bookending the film more than being developed throughout.
Almodóvar has a knack for crafting intriguing characters, but beyond the interesting foils of Janis and Ana, the supporting players mostly feel under-baked. The story of Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Ana’s mother, a rather insecure actress who wants to be a supportive mother but wants to succeed in her chosen career more, is an interesting excursion that ultimately feels underutilized. Janis’s best friend since childhood, Elena (Rossy de Palma)—also a fashion magazine editor who often hires Janis as a photographer—similarly feels weirdly unexplored in the sense that she’s introduced as a prominent player but never really has a storyline of her own.
Janis’s baby daddy Arturo (Israel Elejalde) is entertainingly useless and irrelevant save for providing sperm to a degree reminiscent of the sexual dynamics of bees, at least on the surface. Upon closer inspection, there’s a weird way in which Janis almost follows Arturo’s lead—he tells her something, then she responds to a situation in a way that echoes his story. This happens twice in the lead-up to two of Janis’ most pivotal decisions in the entire movie. Considering how the overall narrative posits men as being of negligible significance, one imagines that the intent is for Arturo’s tales to work as foreshadowing, and the way in which Janis’s later actions can be arguably interpreted as following his lead is really more of an unintended consequence. Still, it’s one of many quibbles that point to the ways in which the story here feels somewhat hastily thrown together.
Almodóvar has many winning qualities as a filmmaker, but perhaps one of his most distinctive and endearing traits is that he does not linger. If anything, he can err on the side of abruptness. This in itself still proves more of a strength than a weakness—there’s no time to dwell on misfires, and one is certainly never bored.
Parallel Mothers almost feels like a stew that hasn’t been left to simmer long enough. It’s an interesting blend of enticing flavors but they haven’t cooked together long enough to fully meld, which feels particularly ironic in a film where the central theme is the reverberating impacts of intergenerational trauma. It might not be Almodóvar’s best, but it’s still well worth a watch, bolder and more entertaining than the average cinematic offering.
Parallel Mothers is now playing in theaters in select cities.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures Classics